Monday, July 22, 2013

What Makes Us Laugh: Crime, it Binds us Together

Public vs Private Eye.
Now we arrive at possibly my favorite genre to read or watch. I always love a good mystery, thriller, or detective story. And arguably they're the collective genre that is about as ironic as a comedy can get without completely crossing over into the territory of irony or becoming so consumed in its own pathos to become tragedy. Writers who understand these borders do well in this genre and go on to become well known in the genre--Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle, etc. When the boundaries are pushed to the breaking point that's typically when people begin rolling their eyes at the story. However while I thoroughly enjoy this genre it should be noted that it wouldn't be capable of existing if the society we lived in weren't as all sad as it is. The fact that it's popular marks an inherent distrust amongst the population for one another and a growing lack of community and common purpose. When you stop to think about it, it's extremely depressing the world of this genre, and rather bleak.

What else do you call "diversity"?
What do you need to know to understand this genre? Quite simply that this genre exists in a highly individualized society that has a low level of social cohesion. There's very little that ties people together left in this genre. That's why so many people "could have committed the crime" because "everyone has a motive" and "no one can be trusted"--even the gentlest of souls could become murderers or thieves if "pushed to the edge of reason" in this genre. This inherent distrust of others stems from the fact that our world is made up of a lot of quirky individuals who don't share the same values. The only shared communal value that people have anymore is that murder is wrong, stealing is bad, and vast corruption conspiracies are extremely evil and that's about it. Those are the only communal value shared by the people, and everything else is tolerated or made allowances for. A detest for crime is the only thing that holds this genre's society together. Beyond that our cast of characters come from many varied walks of life, come from many different types of "clans", and have many varied individual beliefs. Often they'd never actually come together to help one another, until someone gets murdered, something gets stolen, or a vast conspiracy is exposed.

Just a beat cop? Yeah right...
There is one figure who is able to get this otherwise highly individualized society to "get along" and "work together", and that is the "detective". The detective can be a professional police officer or simply an amateur who's brilliant at knowing simple human nature. The detective is a highly detailed character who's good at noticing the small things most people simply overlook. And as a character type they often don disguises and engage in tricks which usually work to make the "villain" underestimate the detective or to unconsciously expose themselves. This is how you know what character type they evolved from, they're the modern version of the "clever slave" or "tricky servant" who's become in this incarnation a "servant to the state" or to the "community at large". They know the vast complexity of their society like the back of their hand and know all the little tricks to getting people to "work together". These are the last figures standing between you and total anarchy.

You know who they are just by looking at them...
Other characters are all marvelous individuals and should be unique while at the same time playing up to a lot of stereotypes commonly known to the public: bored young Socialists mooching off their parents and waiting for the day we wake up from our "bourgeoisie existence" so the "real revolution" can begin, wealthy snobs with nothing better to do than spend money without any concern, a couple of mafia guys who do petty stuff but don't condone murder, an astrology obsessed mystic and author who's overly obsessed with sex in her writings, an overly perfect nun who quietly obeys the laws of god, a wealthy American business man who's a little too slick, a good ol' country boy with a taste for the finer things in life, or a coke dealer with a MA in Chemistry who likes to listen to classical music while snorting, etc. There is nothing typical about this wide cast of characters except that they should be very individualized and extremely unlikely to work together. And they're all hilarious when they interact with one another.

What is up with this guy's hair?

The villain is simply the worst person of the bunch of individuals--the one who went so far as to think that they were such a special person that they could get away with the crime. Typically they're a sociopath who can't be reconciled to society and thought for no other concern than their own. And as such the community comes together in a kind of scape goat ritual more common to tragedy to get rid of the "worst of the lot". The most ironic stories of this genre of course go out of their way to point out the society casting them out is just about as bad as the person they're casting out. The only thing that keeps it from falling into the category of tragedy is that a tragedy is about the person who falls and how brilliantly right they were and is told from the perspective of the individual. In this ironic comedy perspective on the scape goat ritual that person is being banished from the society just because of how "wrong" they are and the story is told from the perspective of the society banishing the wayward individual.

It begs the question, which comes first, the body or the outline?
Your typical plot a child could explain, but usually it follows the crime is committed, the detective begins examining all the possible ways the crime could've been performed and interviewing all the possible suspects. While doing so gets too "close" to solving the crime, prompting the criminal to have to act in a hasty manner a second time to try and cover up their tracks--by doing so the criminal exposes themselves to the detective who then goes about playing dummy until the criminal thinks they've gotten away with it, at which point the criminal is exposed by the detective and supported by society to "lock them away for good". All the while the reader is kept in the dark about the true nature of things until the end, so that they--like the villain--can be surprised at getting caught. Simple, easy, and very formulaic, but also highly satisfying.

The only cover that
doesn't give away
the ending.
The history of this genre is much more recent than most of the others I've covered on this blog, and as such it is a very young genre--still in its infancy or childhood. The detective story couldn't possibly exist until the police were founded as an organization--which didn't happen until the Industrial age really it us and required such an organization to be formed. And such an organization's devotion to logic, evidence, and science denotes that it could only have formed after the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. And it should be noted that even after industrialization starts it isn't until nearly a century after it's begun that the first detective story pops up. It begins arguably with Edgar Allen Poe. He arguably wrote the first detective story with his story: The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). From there it became popularized with the Sherlock Holmes stories, then came the British Gentlemanly Detectives, followed by the Private Eyes of the Film Noir world, and the police detectives you see on television today.  For the large part all that's changed about the stories is the time period it's set in. The rules of the genre adapt to whatever time period it's set in.

In Poe's book the story is about how a retired police detective wants to prove that he's "still got it" and while about him solving a crime, the larger focus of the story is about how age isn't a limiting factor. That's another part of the irony of the genre, in it the elderly and the people with the most experience are usually the best detectives. There's something about age that provides experience, which a lot of these elderly or older detectives provide. On the top of my head I can think of very few popular "young" detectives--they're usually the exception in this genre--and more often they're found in the juvenile version of this genre aimed at kids (Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Boxcar Children, etc.) or are attempts at being ironic. More often
Dowdy exterior,
Mind like a steel trap.
it's an older gruff male character who has a young protege they're training to be just like them. And eventually the young protege after they have enough experience under their belt either takes over or breaks off and begins solving crimes on their own. Somehow, someway the detective is associated with age and experience, even if they don't have any themselves. Often times these old detectives will use their age as a kind of "mask". The elderly Miss Marple plays up that she's a dotty old woman just so to fool the people she investigates. It's extremely ironic thus that age and experience play such a pivotal role in this type of comedy as Comedy traditionally is about youth, vigor, and vitality replacing age, ineptitude, and the decrepit. Essentially a story about how "life conquers death". That the "old folks" can still prove they've "got it" and aren't ready for the grave just yet, is a complete ironic turn in comedy, and yet it works somehow for some strange reason.

That's Ironic Comedy, aka Mysteries, Detective Stories, Crime Novels, Murder Mystery plays, Forensics-based TV Shows, and Thrillers in a nutshell. It's a modern genre for a modern world, reflecting and valuing experience, age, over the naivety of youth. A world full of a lot of various clashing cultures and individuals, that all share exactly one common value: crime is bad, but who otherwise don't get along very well. And if that doesn't describe "today" then I don't know what does.


Monday, July 8, 2013

What is Irony?

Irony is like a bloodthirsty bunny.
You'll understand later, why.
A good question deserves a good answer. Recently, a friend of mine--who you should be aware of is an incredibly well-established man's man of Greek heritage--recently bought a flop-eared rabbit and named the cuddly thing Ares, claiming that as irony.  However what is truly ironic about the situation--the rabbit or the man? Irony seems to be an ever elusive quality that once is realized dissipates like it never existed in the first place. There seems to be some kind of need for defining irony as it always in modern film in literature is being defined over and over again.

What's with the 2000s
and these artsy book covers?
In the Young Adult Novel, Looking for Alaska, our protagonist encounters his roommate, nicknamed "the Colonel", at a boarding school who nicknames our pencil-thin protagonist "Pudge" ironically, and goes to explain that it's irony.  This along with the film Reality Bites, offers the idea that irony is labeling something its opposite.

Reality Bites (1994) literally says that irony is when the actual meaning is the complete opposite of the literal meaning. Which as the Nostalgia Chick points out isn't quite correct. I mean, if you open the dictionary, sure that's part of it, but if that were all that irony was--calling something its opposite--then calling the sky "ground" and the ground "sky" would count as irony--but it wouldn't. No, there's some other "hidden element" to irony that has to be there in order for the "opposite label/definition" definition works, and that element I have to say is the humor that exists as the same as "inside jokes".

No where is this made clearer than in Con Air (1997) by giving an example of a "bunch of idiots" partying on a plane to a song written by a band which died in a plane crash. The irony is lost on anyone who does not have the prior knowledge of the song and the band that recorded it, thus requiring our character to point out the irony of the situation. However, like every inside joke the humor evaporates once explained so that we're left at the end of the scene thinking our character who defined irony is a bit too intelligent in almost a proto-Hipster way. Hipsters, I should note love and revel in irony, thinking they invented it.

The irony... it burns... it burns!

Becoming Jane (2007) offers two competing views on irony--one that it is the merger of two opposites to reach a greater truth, and the other that it is an insult with a smile. Irony can be used to insult with someone as a smile--but usually that is sarcasm that does that, not irony. And while sarcasm is a complementary tool of irony, it is not I believe the end all and be all of irony. However the view offered by the character of Jane Austen (I am unsure whether she actually held the view touted in this film) I think arrives at probably the best truth. Definition and classification can only bring us so far that it can't quantify the unquantifiable, which is the realm from which irony comes from. In this sense irony is a paradox intentionally created to try and capture some larger truth that can't be reached through "normal" methods. It's not really so ironic to say that my friend's bunny named Ares is ironic itself, but if Ares himself is a bloodthirsty rabbit (thus living up to the reputation of the name), then the rabbit itself is ironic as two opposite notions are joined together in paradox. It isn't just enough there to have opposites clashing together, but clashing together in an act of paradox.

And there we have arrived at it, irony is at once an inside joke, a paradox, the unfathomable, the unquantifiable, and the opposite. And that is what it is as a literary device. However is irony a literary device or is there something more to it? Northrop Frye in his essay on mythos argues that irony along with satire makes up the "fourth mythos" of "winter" to comedy's spring, romance's summer, and tragedy's autumn. The first three stages he describes as satire, while the last three stages of the mythos he clearly ascribes to irony.

This is our king?
He calls the first stage "tragic irony" where our tragic heroes fail and are left utterly devastated due to their own undoings instead of that of fate or some supernatural power--essentially King Lear is this stage or any work by Tolstoy. This goes beyond the world view of tragedy, in which violating a force greater than the protagonist causes the downfall of the protagonist. No, in tragic irony there's nothing greater--no supernatural wonder--in irony God is as Nietzsche put him: dead. The only reason there's any tragedy is that a character falls, and he falls not attempting to break some sort of natural law of the universe, he falls by his own actions.

Along with freedom, dreams, and meaning, we lose any and all sense of the heroic. We can have characters, but they aren't the messianic heroes of Romance, or the heroic martyrs of Tragedy. Our characters fight for no causes, nor strive for anything greater--because there is nothing to do but exist, and if they try for something more it'd have no meaning and only bring suffering anyway. Pain and suffering occurs to our characters without any real cause or any true meaning--it simply occurs and our characters either succumb or endure it--and that's about as far from the sense of the heroic as you can get. Nowhere is this made anymore clear than in the film Brazil (1985), where our protagonist dreams of being a hero, but clearly can never be what he dreams--and that contrast creates a particular irony, especially considering the end where he imagines your stereotypical happy ending hero-triumphs scenario, but then is brought back to the harsh reality of being executed. We long for a hero in irony, but irony is the complete absence of such figures as "we're all in it together" and no one stands apart.

Vladimir and Estragon wait and wait and wait...
Fatalistic irony is the second stage where freedom and dreams are lost and our characters are left to merely muddle through these tough times. Of this stage, characters who are waiting for something to happen and in the meanwhile find ways to pass the time. I think probably the best example of this stage of irony is Waiting for Godot. Two men waiting by the side of the road day after day after day for someone named Godot to appear, but who never does--in fact we can never be sure if Godot even exists in the world of the play as the messenger sent to tell them that Godot won't make it today, but perhaps tomorrow--never has seen Godot himself either. It's in this stage that we get the idea that we're on an endless cycle, repeating things and simply having to entertain ourselves to pass the time as very little else changes.

Just when you thought things couldn't get worse...
The final stage is dystopian irony, which depicts a world of unrelieved bondage or hell on earth. Frye spends little time on this stage but paints that every age and every era while it has its utopian romance dreams of its own ideals, it also sees the dystopian irony nightmares of those same ideals taken to the extremes. This is the world of 1984, Brave New World, Brazil, or more recently in the first book of The Hunger Games series. It is typically depicted as an unchanging world of unending torment and enslavement. Death is not seen as a salvation remember because all that exists is this life, there is no afterlife, and life on earth is already hell. Of this stage, The Hunger Games is the lightest, as that society still has some sense of the heroic. The books goes out of their way to point out that Katniss isn't heroic herself, simply playing a role her society demands of her.

The other side of evolution
These three stages however seem to miss another stage that I believe exists between the seasonal aspects of Ironic Winter and Comic Spring (to keep with Frye's seasonal analogy), and that is Comic Irony. Comic Irony I'd assign to being the cusp between the world of irony and the world of comedy. Comic Irony can challenge our humanity while at the same time reaffirming it in an extremely hilarious way. This is the location of Absurdism, straddling between the world of Irony and the world of Comedy. The best example I can give is the Ionesco play Rhinoceros. Rhinoceros is about a small town in which slowly its inhabitants all transform into Rhinoceri to hilarious implications, eventually leaving one man left to be a man--and he soon comes to realize that there's nothing special about being the only human left and that compared to the Rhinoceri he's rather inferior with all his faults and flaws. He eventually comes to the conclusion that "people who attempt to maintain their individuality always come to a bad end"--a truly bittersweet realization before he himself knocks himself out of his doldrums and goes charging headlong into the Rhinos that were once his friends and neighbors. The world of suffering starts becoming laughable once again thanks to the absurd and surreal nature of it all, and from here we can begin to start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The world view of irony could be said to be extremely negative and pessimistic--reality becomes so "real" it becomes a torture cell, any meaning is lost and we're left with an utter wasteland to wander for the rest of our days, with the realization that this is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever shall be.  When one stops to truly think about the implications of irony, one gets caught in its force--and like a whirlpool is sucked to the murky bottom. Our one way out of such a hellhole is to see the absurdity of it all and laugh, as comic irony hints at.

While satire rules the day currently, irony has been trying many times to establish itself--which is why there have been many attempts to define it in literature and film lately. Personally I fear for when it does establish itself as the zeitgeist of the time--for if dystopian literature is irony in its purest expression...  do I even have to finish that sentence? Just remember that when it does finally take over, your ticket out of hell on earth is to laugh. Laughter will set you free.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

LCC Update: Personal Note

My apologies on not getting posts up this week but real life stuff has decided to come due this week that needs to be taken care of. I'll be back next week with that promised post on Irony.

In the meanwhile Happy Fourth of July to all Americans and enjoy your week if you're not.